Learning In Chunks

In the four months since we have become a home-schooling family, the depth and breadth of topics and content we have covered has truly astounded me.  Our first few weeks centered around Greek mythology, with Greek shields and mythological fact cards being researched and made.  As this interest began to wane, a new interest began around endangered animals, exotic creatures and conservation, which has most recently morphed into a fascination around New Zealand’s native bird species.  Significant research has been undertaken on habitat and conservation issues.  Persuasive arguments have been written as to the importance of Zoo organisations.  Flyers have been constructed and books made.  Within numeracy, geometric concepts, basic facts, multiplication, division and fractions have been adequately covered as we move on towards basic percentage knowledge.  Within greater exploratory play, measurement has been a big focus, with the children exploring their urges to mix and concoct a variety of potions, mixtures and recipes.

The rate of learning and the way in which the children move quickly through their various interests has made me reflect on the way in which I planned as a classroom teacher with my own students.  At the beginning of the year the long-term plan would be set out, with term plans, unit plans, weekly and daily plans whittled away to ensure I was well and truly covered for every event possible.  The curriculum would be divided up and topics would be assigned blocks of time for coverage.

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From what I have since observed, the way these blocks of topics, themes or ‘unit foci’ were planned does not do justice to the way in which children learn.  Children, when ‘hooked’ learn with such enthusiasm and veracity they cannot be interrupted or stopped to think about another unrelated topic.  To truly be engaged in the learning, they appear to almost need to live ‘in’ the material, breathing it, tasting it, touching and listening to it.  And then it is done.  Without warning, the interest is over and a new one takes its place.  How long this process takes is entirely up to the child, but certainly does not appear to be a long and drawn out commitment.  It is short but intense and if well-supported, deeply engaging.

When my daughter was 5 years of age, her entire junior syndicate initiated an inquiry of ‘maps’.  She spent over a term investigating maps, drawing maps, learning about atlases and so forth.  A term of over 10 weeks.  While I like to consider my child to be of above average ability, even I know that at age 5 maps did not rock her world.  At age 5, fairies did. Fairies who wrote to her at home and who visited her in the garden.  And yet, for over 10 weeks, she plodded away at ‘maps’ at school.  She, like many above average girls, quietly and obediently followed the classroom program.  But her levels of motivation and enthusiasm for what she was learning were far from high.  In fact, it grew dangerously close to her not ever wanting to pick up an atlas again.

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Why, as teachers, do we feel the need to ‘chunk’ big blocks of time on one set topic, when children simply don’t learn in this way?  By ensuring we cover the curriculum, we are in fact, not truly responsive to the learning needs of our children.  We are not offering a flexible learning environment.  For the child that is not at all interested in maps, what options have they got to explore what truly interests them – when we are locked in to the structure of long term planning and unit/theme plans?  What do we do with that child that says ‘no thanks’ to maps but ‘yes please’ to the wild west, native flora and fauna, or princesses?

It is time to reconsider the way we plan for and teach the students we have, and the interests they hold about the world around them.  Rather than asking yourself as a teacher ‘what will interest my students’, ‘what kind of activity can I plan for today’ or ‘what are some different ways I can teach ….’ – ask them.  Get them thinking about what matters to them.  Get them wondering and noticing and observing and then connecting, investigating and exploring these wonderings and noticings with others.  This is where true learning happens at its best.  Connecting with what matters to the individual, making sense of it, and then sharing that knowledge with others.

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This process does not happen in 10 week blocks, nor in a nice and neatly structured framework whereby there is a tidy beginning, middle and end.  The process at times is chaotic but calm and tidy but messy.  Students drive their learning and are actively engaged in seeking out understanding to their own knowledge, that is meaningful and relevant to them.  This process cannot be ‘chunked’ into allocated time blocks, but allowed to happen until the end of the process naturally occurs.

In adopting this method of student-directed learning, very often the ceiling and walls come down around a child and what they are capable of knowing.  Passion for learning is ignited and the child becomes the driver of their own inquiry.  ‘Learning’ then becomes a truly intrinsic and motivating event.

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What is the Point?

Ask any junior school teacher what subject causes them the most grief when it comes to engaged students and they will invariably answer ‘writing’. Pair that with disengaged boys and teachers reply with a sigh and sometimes an eye roll as they recollect many incidents of trying to have boys write a daily story. The parallels between making young children write and pulling teeth are numerous. It is at writing time that teachers find the incidents of misbehaviour increase and the focus shifts from teaching the writing process to managing engagement of children in the room.

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Why is this? Why has writing become such a chore for children and teachers alike? Why is it that teachers are having to resort to individual incentive systems or heavily scaffolded strategies in order to get a piece of writing from their students in their writing books on an almost daily basis? The answer perhaps is in the relevance of it to today’s children. Generation Z and now Generation Alpha children arriving in our schools have at their disposal a plethora of technology from which they can choose to communicate with others. And this is the key…..when they choose to communicate. As adults we use written text when we choose to connect with others. There would be a small percentage of the population who engage in writing for their own personal satisfaction. For the most part, the average human being will write when there is a purpose. If we, as adults, do not sit down daily to write a story about our weekend……why do we expect our students to?  It is well known as children progress through school they tend to deviate towards their interests and passions.  These strengths are often already noted in junior classrooms.  So why is it that teachers continue to pursue story-writing with students that communicate through their behaviour an absolute lack of interest in the activity?  Instead teachers should adopt a view of providing these students with the skills they need to use writing as a tool to communicate with others, while supporting the development of their strengths and interests.

Some would argue that, with the exponential growth of technology available to our children, learning to write is not as important as it once was. This is not the case. What is more important is the way in which we expose our children to the various audiences that they may engage with using the technology available. Now, more than ever, children have the potential to access a global audience. To have the power of their message communicated worldwide. To be heard. So, of course, they must be exposed to appropriate learning opportunities on which they can build a solid foundation  about written language.

But it is the purpose that is most relevant, rather than the argument about learning written language itself. Let’s face it, in general in junior classrooms, it is the boys at writing time who will become the most disruptive and disengaged in the lesson. Some will sit and stare at the ceiling, others will sharpen their pencil ten times over and many will annoy their neighbor. In the most extreme, these students will be prepared to upend a classroom in order to avoid the writing task. All because they do not see the relevance of the task to them. It is simply not important to them. Couple this with their experiences of teachers standing over them, or keeping them back until the writing is completed……and writing has become their most disliked subject at school.

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So how can children engage and build on their writing knowledge without the unnecessary battle with their teacher? Perhaps consideration to the variety of writing tasks available to students in the classroom is the answer. Many teachers run a writing program that is whole-class, story writing or the traditional processed-writing model. Students do not have a choice in the task, other than what they might choose to write about. Why not provide students with a variety of writing tasks, mirroring those that adults use to communicate in reality? Letter writing, emails, shopping lists, birthday cards, journals and for those most adventurous…blogging! Students can learn that they write for an audience, rather than to write in a book for their teacher’s satisfaction. By using a variety of tasks, students may receive replies from those they engage with, either through email, letter or blogs and therefore take on an understanding of the point of writing.  Of course, the story writers in classrooms must also have their needs met. But these students are often writers anyway, without the need for teachers to creatively motivate them. By providing those less-likely to engage in the writing process with highly motivating activities, inevitably the teacher will be released to consider extending our future Shakespearean authors as well.  In short, all the students will see the point to the task required of them, because it will be relevant to their own interests and needs.

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Another consideration as to why children don’t engage in prolonged writing activity is from a developmental perspective.  Children require a variety of skills in order to be able to think of, structure and recall ideas to begin a story.  When writing this in an exercise book or with pen and paper, add another layer of skills on top.  Holding a pen/pencil is one such challenge for our modern students.  It may be that the availability of pens and pencils has been scant at home and the child simply has not had sufficient practice in holding a pencil, let alone correctly.   For some children, holding a pencil during a prolonged writing task simply hurts.  On top of holding the pencil is then the recalling of ideas while forming letters into unknown words/spellings.  An enormous amount of thinking involved in what is often seen as a basic task by educators.  If teachers offer a varied menu of writing tasks, some of these skills can be addressed, while those with deficits in some areas can be supported to engage in the writing process.  It would be unrealistic to expect all children to happily and successfully engaged in a task of this magnitude on a daily basis without support.  And yet many teachers do have this expectation, and frustrate when it is not met.  By having a varied menu, some pen and paper activities, some technology activities, children will be able to write without realising it.  Because their learning focus will be to communicate with others, not in how to construct a story or recall an event.  After all, that’s the point of writing isn’t it?

Students, as all people do, need to see the point to their learning.  If they don’t, they simply will look for other activities that will be more interesting or relevant.  These might just be activities that teachers fear the most in their classroom environment.

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For the Love of Boys (In Our Classrooms)

My 3 year old son is a source of daily entertainment. So much so that he continually provides me with an array of inspiration for the Cheeky Kids blog. And yesterday was certainly no different.

Donning his bike helmet, he informed me to ‘watch out’ as he was about to ‘do something dangerous’. Initially I didn’t understand what he meant by ‘dangerous’ being that the word is actually quite difficult to decipher when exiting the mouth of a 3 year old. So I carried about my business, not too concerned. It was when his head (helmet still attached) appeared at the kitchen window, asking for the ladder, that I then worked out what he had meant by ‘dangerous’.

As I inquired further, he explained to me that he really wanted to use the ladder to climb up into the window on the second floor. When I looked alarmed, he reassured me that it was ‘ok Mum, I can do it, I will be brave’. As I managed to convince him that was a little ahead of his time, he then moved focus to requesting the ladder be placed next to his brother’s sleep out, again in a bid to reach the roof.

Imagine the image of this little boy, bike helmet firmly clipped on, looking up at me promising me he would be ‘brave’ insisting on following through with the plan he had to be ‘dangerous’ that afternoon. The teacher in me flashes forward to considering how on earth any future teachers would contain him within the four walls of a classroom. 18 months away from turning 5, I find it terribly difficult, and somewhat heartbreaking to think that he will be required to enter into a classroom to sit still on a mat, listen to instructions by a teacher, be required to read books and write stories about things that barely interest him. Moreover he will then be measured against his peers, and against a scale that determines what is expected of him in relation to one day attaining NCEA qualifications.

Generally speaking the school starting age of 5 years does not suit boys. Of course, there are always exceptions to any broad statement, and in making this assertion I don’t wish to deny those boys ready at 5 their unique start to formal education. But from my experience and observation of new entrant/reception/kindergarten classes, it is the boys that teachers are finding the most difficult to engage in the ‘formal stuff’. These boys find it difficult to sit still, engage in any written activities and at times socially interact with their peers appropriately. From observation, the boys I see in these rooms, given toy cars, cardboard boxes, blocks, play dough, or toy dinosaurs (the list is infinite), will choose to engage for far longer periods of time than in anything structured. In short, they want to explore, create, imagine, play (and blow things up) with their mates all day.

There is growing evidence supporting the claims that boys are making up the numbers of students underachieving and disengaging from school. There are a variety of reasons the evidence points to as to the reasons for this disengagement. Kathleen Palmer Cleveland in her book Teaching Boys Who Struggle At School explores these reasons, and offers some solutions. One area she outlines are the four ‘styles’ of learning and their correlating risks associated with academic underachievement. These styles are:

1. The Practical Doer:
Motivated through mastery, by getting it right and the joy of collecting and sorting information
2. Thinker-Knower:
Motivated by mastering knowledge and the joy of intellectual challenge
3. Interpersonal:
Motivated by connecting, interacting with others, providing practical service and using resources to be helpful
4. Self-Expressive:
Motivated by imagining, making a difference in people’s lives and the joy of growth through empowerment and artistic self-expression

Each of these styles has been attributed with a percentage of risk associated with underachievement at school. A boy with an interpersonal style of learning has a 63% risk of underachieving, those who are self-expressive 24% and the practical-doers have a 12% risk of underachievement. Thinker-knower boys have a 1% risk of failing in school (Cleveland, 2011).

So what are the implications of this evidence for the classroom teacher our boys encounter when beginning school? Perhaps the first task is simply observation. Providing activities for the boys to engage with of a transition-to-school-nature in order to allow the teacher to simply sit and watch. To get to know the boy as an individual learner and person rather than another child to ‘get started’ at school. Observing their developmental readiness and the way in which they engage with activities. In other words, what lights their fire?. For then, teachers can be most responsive to their boys needs in the classroom. And if, through observation, it is clear teachers have boys with an interpersonal style of learning in their group, then activities that encourage this must be available. If we as teachers expect quiet, ordered, compliant and studious classroom environments we may be in fact limiting the potential of boys with these interpersonal learning styles. Self-expressive and practical-doers also need avenues to explore new learning. Imagining and creativity should not be squeezed out of our classrooms because of the need to fit within a set of standards. Opportunities to ‘do’ and ‘practice’ practical activities should also be available to our boys in order to satisfy those who learn through experience and inventing, rather than simply reading or writing.

In summary, boys are arriving at school simply not ready for the way in which our current education system works. They need a considerable amount of time exploring, playing, creating, inventing, breaking, making, shouting, yelling, running and jumping before any of the sit-down, read-and-write stuff. The key for teachers is in their understanding of the boys they have before them and how best to mitigate these implications within the first year (or sometimes more) of a boy’s schooling. By understanding the way in which boys engage may help determine the sorts of activities, and therefore expectations we have of our boys in the junior school classrooms. I would hope that when my 3 year old begins his school journey, he will still be allowed plenty of opportunity to be the interpersonal, self-expressive, practical-doer learner that he is! I can hear junior-school teachers battening down the hatches around the country as I write! But never fear, bike-helmet compulsory!

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The Cause of a Mothers Heart Attack

My three year old causes me mild heart attacks several times a day. Not necessarily due to his risk taking, and not always due to his loud and boisterous nature. The latest cause to my coronary health is his urge to ‘boom’ everything in site. I will come out of the bedroom in the morning and he appears around the corner with either a stick, Lego, piece of cut off pipe, or if none of the above are available, his fingers in the shape of a gun. Then follows a loud BOOM with ‘I got you Mum’, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM.

Not content just with obliterating me, his sister, father, cat or passing chickens in the driveway…….he will often then elaborate on the military attack with cannons, bombs and when all else fails ‘ninja moves’. He will explain in great detail how when he points his cannon, (or boomer) over ‘there’, it will then shoot out and fire to over ‘there’ and explode ‘getting you Mum’. Naturally cannons shoot things out of them, so this demonstration is usually accompanied with some object in trajectory across the room.

I am a peaceful person. I do not advocate the use of guns or support those who feel the need to arm themselves. I initially banned guns from our home when our eldest boy was young, reneging on the ban when it became clear I was fighting a losing battle. We carefully monitor the use of TV with our little ones, and in the most part (apart from some cartoons) they are not exposed to violent TV programmes. Nor have they been exposed to any video games. So it is somewhat perplexing to understand where my sons urge is for throwing things across the room in the context of his game. There have been several moments where he has looked most disappointed when I have, in a fit of frustration (and increased heart rate), suggested bluntly that he stop throwing things around the room. I decided to step back and notice other moments through the day where the theme of throwing things has recurred. Such as throwing clumps of dirt over the fence to watch them roll down the paddock. Throwing (without notice) clothes at me, rather than passing them to me as request. Stones firing over the back fence (despite the livestock in the paddock). And of course the ever present bomb presence lurking around the corners in our home.

It was clear upon reflection that my son had an urge to throw things. And it was also clear to me that no amount of me telling him to simply stop was going to actually gethim to stop. It was an innate urge that most of the time appeared to be impulsive and beyond his rational thought. He just did it. And by me telling him to stop it was only going to help in creating frustrations that would be hard to manage.

Pennie Brownlee and Kimberley Crisp provide a useful explanation for the urges children demonstrate, particularly in the early years. These urges include collecting, distributing, transporting, enclosing, rotation, circular, trajectory, ordering, grouping, construction and deconstruction, posting and family-making. When adults take the time to stop and observe a child’s behaviour it will be these urges they will see in their children’s repeated play-behaviours. Sometimes it is these very urges that we find ourselves saying are causing tests to our adult sanity. Like my 6 year old daughters apparent need to transport her many toys in handbags around our house, or to and from her grandparents home. Not a problem until she has included in one of her many bags her asthma medication which then cannot be located when needed! A common frustration of parents occurs when toddlers insist of posting items down the toilet. And how many adults have located toys in the microwave? Who hasn’t in their childhood made huts with old sheets, blankets the couch and chairs? All these reflect innate urges for transportation, posting and enclosure. And some of these can be so easily misread by adults. Kimberley and Pennie also acknowledge that these urges don’t miraculously cease when we are all grown-up. As adults we continue to have our own urges that filter into our daily behaviours. If my teenager hangs the clothes out on the line, I often have to go and re-peg for my own self-satisfaction. It may be the subconscious need to draw circles on a pad of paper while talking on the telephone. Or the gut reaction to finding a flat stone at the edge of the lake or ocean……determined it is the perfect stone for skimming. Only to find you weren’t successful initially and needing to skim many more times before finishing, happy you there the perfect ‘skimming stone’.

How then, does it feel to the person who has the urge to re-peg the clothesline if they were not permitted or even restricted from doing it? What about if, when in the telephone, you were prevented from doodling and drawing in spirals on the scrap piece of paper? Would you then be able to focus on the content of the telephone conversation? Or would your thoughts become consumed with the desire to doodle and the frustration that you were not permitted? Would it be easy for you to walk away having not successfully skimmed the perfect stone on the water?

So why, then, are children often told they can’t do things that are stemming from these innate urges? Rather than banning throwing in our house, I have had to define some expectations around when and where the throwing can occur. Last weekend we set up a pyramid of cans under the clothesline and he was able to ‘smash’ them with his throws to his hearts content (all roaming livestock was redirected from the area). He was given a pile of stones to throw over the fence into the paddock behind our house with his sister and I becoming his cheering team depending on the length of his throw. At the point where it is apparent he is about to shoot his cannon inside our house, he is redirected outside to take up a more tactical vantage point rather than not have the advantage within the confines of the house.

Adults need to take the time to see and to learn about the urges children have in their play. Perhaps by first considering the urges we have as adults, we can then put ourselves in the hearts of our children…….empathising with what they must really feel when told they can’t do what their urge is telling them they must. It is when we, the adults, can truly see what drives our children’s behaviour, that we can then begin to be responsive to our children’s needs.

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Superheroes in Disguise

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”
– Carl Sagan

Each day I am constantly in awe of my 3 year old son and the way in which he makes sense of the world around him. His life is full of wonderment, excitement, discovery and awe. He takes himself to places that, as an adult, I actually struggle to fully comprehend. The way in which he creates his own entertainment in parallel worlds provides me with an entertainment that I find myself reliving moments of the day with my husband when all are asleep……and having such a chuckle in doing so.

Today, he informed me that he was a Superhero. Not just any superhero, but the best Superhero in “the whole wide world”. From that moment on, he was completely committed to his character. I observed his stature physically change shape as he truly convinced himself he was who he believed himself to be. Suddenly, I was no longer there…..unless I served a useful purpose (be it damsel in distress, or evil villain). He transported himself to a world where he was the most powerful, and where mere human strength was inferior to that of his super power abilities.

His ability to truly believe and commit to his character was confirmed to me when I queried what exactly his powers existed of. I was told to ‘watch this’ and then treated to a display of his physical prowess. Samples of which included contorted hand movements, twisting and jumping from side to side (fighting the baddies) and then a demonstration of his amazing running speed through a pre-defined race track in the house. It was only until I pointed out that his super powers may need food and drink that he returned to the here and now and agreed to have a snack. However his powers were demonstrated during the consumption of a cut pear – of which he could eat at lightening speed.

This kind of play is fundamental to the healthy development of any human being. So many children are being deprived of the opportunities to have ‘real’ imaginative play, because ‘reality’ is provided to them in the form of closed toys (in this case it could have been a licensed dress up costume). Closed toys define the play for the child, rather than the child defining the play instead. My son could have slipped into a Spider-Man or Batman outfit and happily ‘played’ these characters. But these are pre-defined. Spider-Man has a clear set of powers that have been created by someone other than my son. By being a ‘Super Hero’ as constructed by my son’s imagination…..there are no boundaries or ‘rules’ on his super powers other than what he sets for himself. And if they don’t work…..he can change them. This is particularly crucial for boys. By him having many opportunities to be in control in appropriate situations such as imaginative play – he will be less likely to seek out opportunities to control in inappropriate situations (such as how he behaves on the next supermarket visit).

So the next time you are informed that you have a little superhero in the house, or that your children have disappeared but in their place is a cat or dog or baby or horse or truck or digger or …….. allow them to ‘remain’ for as long as the play takes. They are going ‘somewhere’ which is exactly what we want for them in their lives ahead. They’re just having a practice run at it in the meantime.

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Male Communication – A Female Perspective

I talk far too much. I talk too much because I am female and because I am genetically predisposed to over talk. Because of this I am very mindful about how I speak to my sons. All the research shows that men and boys interpret information aurally far differently than females. So when I give instructions to my sons I can almost hear myself talking far too much. With my teenage son, my husband is often left to deal with him so that I can avoid becoming the nagging mother. But at the same time I have one ear open and hear the interaction that occurs. It plays out something like this……’stop being an egg……’ ‘pick that up…..’ ‘hurry up’…. ‘leave it alone’. I’m sitting there listening, thinking this boy is going to be emotionally scarred for the rest of his life because of the way his father is talking to him. But it works. He responds. He does it. He loves his father no less than any other time. The jobs get done. If I were to ask him to do something for me, it would be ‘can you please put this away because……’ with usually a very long-winded reason for why I’m asking him to do the job for me. Invariably the request is forgotten, because he didn’t hear all the instructions. He just heard a barrage of words and quickly tuned out. I then get frustrated that I have had to repeat myself, and feel offended that he didn’t pay attention to me in the first place.

So over the past few weeks I have been undertaking some informal observations with my youngest son in the way I can have my instructions interpreted. As a 3 year old, he manages very well in 2 and 3 step instructions. This is unusual, as I would expect 3 year olds to be able to just manage simple 2 step instructions such as pick up teddy and put him on the table. I think the success of my son following more complex instructions is in the breakdown of language when delivering them. I have been trying hard to state the steps in one, two or three word phrases. For example teeth, pick up toys, bed. Then I hit ‘repeat’ to almost provide a rhythmical pattern to the instructions in order for them to be retained long enough to be completed. Teeth, pick up toys, bed….teeth, pick up toys, bed…….and I can often hear my son repeating this to himself as he works through the instructions.

The benefits of this approach are numerous. Firstly, the success felt in following someone’s instructions and receiving the feedback when completed. Secondly the ability to develop a way of remembering instructions, retaining information and processing it aurally. Thirdly, not being bamboozled by the ‘noise’ unnecessary words can create for our boys. Simply keeping things matter-of-fact.

So Mums, Aunties, Nanas, Grandmas and sisters. Keep it simple and stop talking quite so much! Choose your moments to engage with the boys in your life verbally. Of course, we must talk to our boys, model language they need, discuss emotions, problem solve and scaffold self-management. But learn to recognise the glazed look….the distracted stare….or the need to repeat several times. These are definite indicators of a male being ‘talked to’ far too much.